Someone Finally Gets It — Again

Joel Alperson is a highly-respected, prominent person within the Federation world — he was a past national campaign chair for United Jewish Communities, now known as the Jewish Federations of North America. He is not traditionally observant or Orthodox, much less Charedi, but he does seem to know how the winds are blowing in the Jewish world.

His op-ed last week is not the first time he’s pointed out where the world of Federated Judaism has gone astray. His op-ed from two years ago, entitled “Don’t fear ‘G-d,’ ‘Torah’ and ‘Judaism’,” also caught my attention. But this, if anything, is still harder-hitting. While I urge you to read his op-ed, “Judaism is more than ‘tikkun olam’,” in full, essential quotes follow — and they are numerous:

Non-Orthodox Judaism is confronted by rising levels of secularism that almost always lead to assimilation — a trend that within a generation or two could render Reform and Conservative Judaism largely irrelevant in North America (and abroad as well). Non-Orthodox Jews’ general discontent with and resulting departure from Jewish life, left alone, stands to bring Reform and Conservative Judaism to a state of obsolescence… we should know by now that the non-Orthodox way of life is failing by just about every metric we have at our disposal.

This distancing from Jewish religious (i.e., G-d-based) teachings and ritual experiences inevitably leads to a distancing from Jewish purpose… let’s be honest: These “tikkun olam” pursuits might feel good and even do some good, but they do little to build Jewish communities.

We’re losing Jews and the commitment of Jews far too quickly to think that we can afford to continue on as we are. We might insist that tikkun olam and social justice are central to our Jewish way of life, but they are increasingly taking the place of serious Jewish education and Jewish practice. Those are the water pumps and sandbags employed by the Orthodox movement against the rising tides of assimilation.

I watch with sadness as the seminaries of our non-Orthodox movements lay off employees and close programs. National non-Orthodox day school attendance represents only a small percentage of Jewish children in the United States. And it’s not because the economy started spiraling downward — the trends leading to this point were in place long before… In contrast to the haredi Orthodox, the Modern Orthodox largely swim in the same secular waters as other Jews: They own televisions, use the Internet, attend secular universities, and work and vacation in the secular world.

But they also hold to a religious discipline that they believe is life-improving. They observe Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, and they study Jewish texts in far greater numbers than non-Orthodox Jews. They are more likely to have children, and their children are far more likely to marry Jews and make Jewish homes.

Judaism teaches us how to be better friends, businesspeople, husbands, wives and philanthropists. It tells us how to help the weak and when to fight evil. In short, Judaism done right makes us better human beings. It is the discipline of leading a traditional Jewish life that also reminds us how best to engage in repairing the world.

Ironically, by overemphasizing tikkun olam we could ultimately, through lack of Jewish knowledge and experience, lose the very impetus that put us in the tikkun olam business in the first place… as a community, at least for now, we’ll be severely weakened if we don’t acknowledge that we must repair ourselves far more urgently than we must repair the world.

Hat Tips: Dovid Winiarz, Pinchas Avruch

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6 comments to Someone Finally Gets It — Again

  • concerned

    sounds like a closeted orthodox jew (almost)

  • Leah

    By far one of the more concise and simply beautiful articles as of yet…..So well said. Thank you.

  • CJ Srullowitz

    It’s interesting to note that the “mechayev” here is modern Orthodoxy.

  • Moe

    I’m not sure he got it. While he does refer to Orthodox practice as “G-d-based”, and he does denounce the emphasis on “Tikkum Olam” as a Jewish spun term for “humanism”, he continues to praise the Orthodox for their growth, their quality of life, their generosity, and their humanism. What happened to “G-d based”? Where’s the spirituality? If the focus is not on our relationship with G-d, spirituality, what’s the point and where’s the sustainability?

  • L. Oberstein

    Becoming orthodox means changing the whole way you live. Even if one wishfully says “I wish I were orthodox” as I have heard some non frum people say, doesn’t mean they are ready or willing to change.Orthodoxy requires a large committment to study of Hebrew texts, very scary to one who can barely read Hebrew and is inconsistent with the way most people live. Keeping kosher and shabbat are hard. All of the above are not even the root problem, the real problem is that young Jews are not getting married and having children and if they do they often intermarry. Also, people are not joining syangoogues, they are into individualism, not group dynamics. So, there are fewer non frum Jews. By 2050, the majority of Jews will be frum, so I have read. I don’t know how good it is that the youth are indifferent to marrying, to bearing children, to joining shuls, to observing anything. They are more like Jerry Seinfeld. Of course, Reb Yaakov, you could blame it all on Obama and the liberals, but it spells the end of an era and the start of another. If that is good, who knows?

  • dr. bill

    I was amused reading positive reactions to Joel Alperson’s op-ed piece. Even Rabbi Eric Yoffie, while disagreeing, largely acknowledged its correctness. His criticism is indicative of how reform judaism is redefining its positions relative to mitzvot. What is interesting is a single sentence in the original article. To Rabbi Yoffie it is central, while Rabbi Menken omits it from his shortened version. Rabbi Maryles quotes the sentence without great emphasis on his blog. Three authors reading the same piece. Demonstrates something I was taught in shiur 45 years ago – always read the original. Even a summary by one rishon of another cannot be trusted to convey a full measure of original intent.

    read the article and the three responses; it is instructive.